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Altered Core

By Potential Violet



Prime Kindergarten interior: somewhere beneath the canyon.

“Well put me down then.” said the blond Gem impatiently.

The black Gem extended her arms, unceremoniously dumping her colleague onto the floor.

“Ow.” the blond said flatly, scowling up at her.

The black Gem folded her arms.

“This may come as a surprise to you, but when I asked to be put down I didn’t mean that I wanted to be dropped…”

“You asked to be put down? I am so sorry, Empress, so sorry. Forgive me for questioning you, but your tone made it sound more like an order, and I know how much you hate it when your orders aren’t treated as matters of urgency.”

“You’re so funny.” the blonde said icily. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure I told you to stop calling me that…”

“I’m pretty sure you did, but how could I when you’re so… imperious? Addressing you without your title, it just wouldn’t be right, you know?”

“Are you going to stand there failing at humour all day, or are you going to help me up?”

With a sigh, the black Gem extended her hand and pulled the blond to his feet.

As he brushed himself off he asked her:

“How do you do that anyway?”

“Do what, drop you? I just tilt my arms like this,” she said, raising her arms and letting them fall, “and then gravity does the rest.”

“I meant, how come you’re always holding me when we de-fuse?”

“It’s weird you know, I’ve been asking myself the same question for a while now… Perhaps it’s because of your subconscious need for safety and support, both of which you find in my arms?”

“You’re literally the most irritating person in this whole facility...” he sighed, covering his brow with his palm. “How… how did I even get stuck with you?”

“Well I’m just throwing some ideas around here, but I’m going to guess that it’s because you demand perfection from absolutely everything, and because nobody understands the way my time-management schedule is set up. Ohhhhh yeah, and you just… don’t get the concept of delegation.”

“That question was meant to be rhetorical.” he said irritably.

“It was meant to be? Because—”

"Reh - tore - ih - cul!” enunciated the now flustered Gem, cutting her off before he had to hear anything more from her. “Ohmygem I can’t actually believe I’m having this conversation with you!” he said, fanning himself melodramatically. “Aren’t you supposed to be a calming influence? I swear, stressing me out must be in your job description…”

“And splitting up Onyx must be in yours, but I won’t hold it against you.” she retorted with a grin.

“Hey, I don’t separate him by myself you know! We have to be mentally synchronised to maintain stability: last time I checked, we, involved more than one person.”

“Yeah, and one of our persons insists on being in a state of mind that is actually terrible for fusion.”

“You make it sound like I consciously brought us here, just to be contrary.”

“You didn’t?!” teased the black Gem with mock incredulity.

“No!” the indignant blond said loudly, confused at how she could even think of such a stupid question.

“…You can be quite contrary though.” she said in a matter-of-fact way.

“I’m not contrary!”

“Contrary is the wrong word, isn’t it… but you do worry too much.”

“I am not worrying! I’m… I’m… I am approaching this with the correct level of seriousness!” he declared accusingly.

She raised a totally unconvinced eyebrow.

“It’s true!” he insisted defensively.

“Alright then, Empress; if you’re not worried then what’s up, because we were perfectly stable a minute ago, and Onyx is hardly likely to unfuse himself —especially when there’s an opportunity to see Hematite.”

Then her eyes flickered: their usual monochromatic white taking on a higher intensity glow for a moment, as a thought she’d had before reoccurred to her. A mischievous smile spread across her face, and with that the blond had missed his chance to offer a reply:

“Is that what’s bothering you? Has the thought of seeing our beloved director got you all in a stir?”

“Oh. My. Stars. You’re incredible… absolutely incredible…” he said with a slow shaking of his head. “Do we actually stay fused all day, or do I just hallucinate that so I don’t have to see you so often? Our synchronization must be some kind of miracle —or localized distortion of reality… I swear you’re just— I can’t even— oh my gem; if there was a kindergarten on every planet in the universe, they still wouldn’t be able to make someone as annoying as you. I give up; you are just so, so beyond hope...”

There was a pause as he awaited her response to his somewhat negative assessment (‘she brought it on herself,’ he reflected, ‘bringing up that Hematite thing at a time like this… as if!’).

When she did reply, it was not with the sort of apologetic response that he’d been expecting.

Not at all…

“…So what do you think your fusion dance would be like?” she asked, replacing the truculent look on his face with one of total astonishment. “I reckon she’d have to lead, and she’d definitely want to keep a firm grip on you: make sure you don’t start with your own steps while she’s doing her thing. Not that I think you’d object to doing her thing with her…”

He stared at her in disbelief, and she looked back into his sky blue eyes, neither saying a word. It occurred to him how ridiculous they must look, and how little had been accomplished by their thoroughly inane conversation.

He began to laugh, and immediately recognising the source of his amusement, she did the same.

When they’d regained some semblance of seriousness the blond smiled at her, letting her know that he was glad that she was there. But his expression faded quickly — replaced by a rare look of undisguised anxiousness.

“Glare?” she prompted him after some moments of silence.


“Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you now?” she asked quietly.

“…What if Hematite doesn’t like the idea?”

“Then we got a two hour break from reading development reports?”

“I’m serious, Sparse.”

She paused, considering the best way forwards. There probably wasn’t a Gem in the kindergarten that could navigate Glare’s turbulent moods with as little trouble as she did (apart from maybe one of the other cubic zirconia, and they were all cliquey, gossipy and egotistical as well, so that didn’t count), but that wasn’t to say that dealing with him didn’t require a great deal of care.

He was as temperamental as a Gem could be, and though he liked to make a grand spectacle of getting annoyed at her, most insults were soon forgotten in favour of the next thing to be dramatic about. This time however, his almost pleading tone and the way he did nothing to hide his uncertainty from her, meant that further joking would be very poorly received. As far as she could tell, his former owners were the only people he trusted more than her: in this situation, a perceived slight would not be easily forgiven.

“Okay.” she acknowledged quietly.

She lifted her hands to her hair: one hand holding her cylindrical black clip steady, the other undoing its clasp; carefully she extracted the device from her hair, freeing her grey curls from their loose ponytail. She handed the obsidian-studded clip to him, shaking the last of her hair loose as he held the ornament up to the cushion cut gem in his forehead, into which it disappeared with a dim flash.

Then, without any explanation, she proceeded to sit on the floor:

“What are you doing?!” he complained as she lay on her back.

“Come on, lie down; you’ll feel better. Trust me.”

It was inappropriate (and undignified), but when it came to dealing with situations like this she always knew what to do. He lowered himself the floor near her, his head almost touching hers.

“Why wouldn’t Hematite like the idea?” she asked once he was settled.

“Because we don’t actually have any evidence… And because she doesn’t like Onyx.”

“Those aren’t real reasons.”

“Of course they are. How are they not?” he defended.

“Well the first one isn’t true, and... actually the second one isn’t true either.”

“Those seed crystals —that’s not evidence!”

“Okay they’re not evidence as such,” she had to admit, “but they’re useable; they show that Onyx has enough confidence in the theory to start serious work on it. Whether she likes him or not, you know she never ignores what he’s working on.”

“No, she doesn’t.” he agreed.

“And she’s probably been waiting for something like this from him. We finish everything so much faster as Onyx, but have you noticed how she rarely gives us extra work to do in the spare time?”

“That’s because if she starts giving us the amount of work he’s capable of doing, and then we split for whatever reason, then there’ll be too much for the two of us.”

“You know she isn’t that short-sighted: she’d take that into account if she really wanted him to do anything extra.”


He couldn’t argue with that: if Hematite was anything it wasn’t short sighted — that much was apparent from the number and scope of the projects being carried out at the kindergarten in addition to Gem production…

“So with all that free time… she has to have been waiting for an idea or something, and now he’s got one.” she concluded.

They lay in silence as he contemplated what she’d said. After a few minutes he spoke again:

“She better make something out of it.” he challenged.

“She will, ev—”

“She has to! This is the most brilliant idea since automated product recovery!” he declared fiercely.

“Are you arguing with me, or yourself?”

“I’m not arguing! I just— I want her to take advantage of this.”

“I know, Glare, me too. But relax: you think it’s brilliant, Onyx thinks it’s brilliant, and I… don’t like to polish my own gem, but I’m pretty pleased to be a part of this.” she said with a grin. “I would tell you if I had any doubts about it though. And whether we’re involved at the end or not, something like this doesn’t just vanish.”

“We better be involved…” he responded threateningly. “My work is so much better than everyone else’s, it’s about time I got the recognition I deserve.”

“You mean our work?”

“Yeah, that’s what I said.” he responded dismissively.

Sparse sighed again.

Then there was another period of silence, broken by him a second time.

“But what if she does accept it? Do you think she’d keep us together?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, they don’t build kindergartens with pearl production in mind: do you think that we’d be sent to different sites… you know, for the different parts?” he questioned her nervously.

“…Do you know the ins and outs of pearl culturing: I mean the really detailed stuff?”

“Well… no, but—”

“Neither do I, so we’re about as useful as each other in that regard, just in different ways. And it’s the same if you look at it from a kindergartening point of view. It wouldn’t make sense to send us to different locations anyway.”

“Why not?”

“Because this idea is entirely Onyx’s.”

“Yeah, and we form him, so we know all about it.”

“Yes, we form him, but we were only in the background when he had the idea. He has a fuller understanding of it, he can develop it by himself; we’d have to discuss it to reach the same level, and even then he can combine what we know in a way we can’t as individuals.”

“So… you don’t think we’ll have to go to separate places?” he asked for a second time, just to make sure.

“No, Glare. No I don’t.”

“Good.” he said decisively.

After about five minutes had elapsed and he hadn’t said anything more, she assumed that he was alright again. This time it was her turn to interrupt the reasonably tranquil atmosphere they’d created on the floor.

“Won’t you miss her though?” she asked in her most innocent voice.

“Wha— Oh don’t start with that again.”

She sat up, angling herself to be able to look into his eyes.

“Come on, you would, wouldn’t you; even if it’s just a little bit?” she urged, her eyes bright with mischief.

He rose from the floor, turning himself to sit opposite her.

“Where did you even get the idea that I’ve got this… burning passion for Hematite?” he asked with a hint of annoyance.

“You said it yourself: we form Onyx, and Onyx is so into Hematite. I know he doesn’t get it from me...”

“Well he doesn’t get it from me either! That’s just… urrrrrgh, no.”


“No! It’s really convenient how you’ve forgotten that he’s capable of having independent ideas. Have you ever considered that that might be one of them?”

“I have… But it’s much more fun this way.”

“Can we fuse now? I don’t think I can take any more of this.” he said as he rose to his feet, taking the opportunity to tidy his pixie cut.

She followed suit, also standing up.

“I know it’s an upsetting thought, but don’t worry: I’ll take good care of you for her while we’re gone.” she said with dubious sincerity, laying a slender hand on his shoulder. “Okay?”

A light-pink flush quickly spread over his cheeks.

“Awww, is that for me? You’re so adorable.”

“Oh get off me!” he snapped, hastily brushing her hand away. “I don’t need looking after by anyone, especially not you!” he proclaimed, even as his blush intensified.

“You’re actually too cute: I can see why they call you—”

“DON’T. Even. Go there. There are only two people that are allowed to call me that: one of them doesn’t, and the other isn’t you.”

“Is that list subject to change?”

“Fusion? Can we? Now please?” he asked expectantly.

“Alright. Are you sure though? You’ve got no more concerns you want to run by me?”

He thought about it for a brief moment.

“No I don’t. Thank you.”

He smiled at her. She smiled back

“Okay then, ready when you are, Empress.” she said as she held out a hand to him.

He grasped the offered hand, and her smile widened to a grin.

“See you on the other side.”

He merely grinned in response.

The handshake was their own compact version of a fusion dance, originating from how impractical it could sometimes be to do something ‘full sized’. They cycled through the carefully ordered grips, gestures and spins like it was nothing: the speed and precision of their movements giving the sequence a distinctly mechanical quality. Exactly as designed, it was a flawless example of Gems in physical synchronization — complete with the mental harmony to complement it, despite the façade of cold impersonality.

In a short space of time they were ready integrate: each placed a hand on the shoulder of the other, before quickly sliding that hand down the length of their partners arm, back into a handshake. She brought their interaction to an end with a single anticlockwise twirl towards him; the resulting contact allowed her to fall into him backwards, and the two Gems became a single, indistinct mass of light.

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